No, that’s not a typo in the title.
By the time you’re reading this, it’ll be month two of the Anthrospin Hawaiian Language Revitalization Project.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, language revitalization isn’t just about learning how to ask where the library is, or how to order copious amounts of pizza in a new language. Language revitalization addresses the loss of a language through helping to bolster cultural understanding as well. Language just happens to be a mammoth part of cultural understanding.
With that in mind, take a look at this screen shot:
This threw me off for a minute. “Vog” didn’t seem like a thing for me. But my phone is in German, and in German the “v” sounds like “f” in English. So my thoughts were it was some kinda glitch because this is an English language Hawaiian course being run on a phone that’s set to German.
But if they meant to have said “fog,” what image represents that?
Well, turns out vog is a word. It’s sort of a volcanic smog that’s a mixture of sulfur dioxide and other gases as they react with oxygen after eruption.
I didn’t know that was even a word! I mean, of course it’s a “thing,” but aside from the description of it, I wouldn’t have thought there were another way to refer to it.
Polalauahi is the Hawaiian word for it, and it’s a common word there, which honestly kinda makes sense seeing as how they’re volcanic islands and Kīlauea has been constantly erupting since the beginning of 1983. But outside of Hawaii, volcanoes aren’t super common in the United States. There are 169 of them, and 141 of those are in Alaska and 5 more in Hawaii (3 of which are active).
That doesn’t leave a whole lot for the rest of the country. And as a result, it was kind of a surprise to me to learn about vog through learning about Hawaii. And it’s an example of a pretty big paradigm within linguistics called Linguistic Relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Linguistic Relativity is related to language and cognition, and essentially it attempts to explain the ways in which our thought processes and perception of the world is directly influenced and shaped by the language we speak.
There are two major bits of this.
The “strong” version states that language is deterministic of our very cognitive capabilities and that we may be “limited” by what our language enables us to express and experience.
The “weak” version states that linguistic categories (noun, verb, adverb, etc) influence our thoughts, perceptions, and decision making but do not inherently limit cognition in and of itself. It may be a gigantic influence—a language without numbers greater than two would yield speakers who have a rough time with mathematics. But beyond that, their cognition isn’t actually impaired. Not knowing a thing isn’t the same as not being capable of knowing, or not needing to know something.
Most linguists nowadays are in the weak camp of linguistic relativity.
Bringing us back to ka polalauahi. A native English speaker who’s never been to an active volcanic region might land in Hawaii and see vog and thing it’s awful smoggy or Smokey. A native of Hawaii might land in New York and see dust clouds near an active construction site and comment that it’s awfully voggy.
Your language very much influences how you understand and perceive things. Your interactions with the world around you are determined in part by the constructs which your language/s allow you to experience them.
By extension, there are critical aspects of a culture that are imbedded within a language. And that’s why the loss of a language is so horrible. If everyone in the world spoke Spanish or Norwegian we may all get by very well. But knowing what you now know about how your world-view is shaped and sharpened by linguistic “permissions,” think about what would be lost from your culture if you removed completely the language in which it blossomed.